MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin running back Montee Ball doesn’t have a recognition problem. And neither does his team.
After rushing for 1,923 yards, tying Barry Sanders’ NCAA record of 39 touchdowns in a season and finishing fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting, Ball is recognized as one of the top Heisman Trophy candidates this season.
Wisconsin, with Ball and what is regarded as one of the best defenses in coach Bret Bielema’s seven seasons there, is regarded by many people as the favorite to repeat as Big Ten champion.
But there was one time when Ball’s football fame didn’t make much of an impression.
The first time he met his girlfriend, Anne Marie Jahnke, she had no idea he played football.
“We both were in class early one day and she asked if I was going to the game this weekend. I just told her, ‘Yeah, I’ll be there,’” Ball said earlier this summer at the Big Ten football media days.
“I was scooting across campus one day on my moped and she was walking with one of her friends and she waved at me and the guy was like, ‘How do you know him?’ He told her (who Ball was). She was very embarrassed. She said she was bright red when the guy told her.”
His girlfriend’s surprise might have been equaled by many Badgers fans when Ball decided to return to Madison for his senior season.
A projection that he might not be picked until the third round of the NFL draft played a big role in Ball’s decision.
“It was a very tough decision. But I have no regrets, no regrets at all and I’m honestly saying that,” he said.
“I made my decision the day before the Rose Bowl game. Right after we lost against Oregon in the locker room, Coach B (Bielema) said a few words and asked if anyone had something to say. I knew that was the right time to say something. A lot of guys were surprised but a lot of players loved what I said.”
Wisconsin won the first Big Ten football championship game over Michigan State last season.
With Ohio State and Penn State banned from this season’s Big Ten title game, the Badgers only have to beat out Illinois, Indiana and Purdue out for the Leaders Division title and a return trip to the Big Ten title game.
Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska are the favorites to come out of the Legends Division.
Those teams could have the final say on Wisconsin’s season. And, the combination of a Michigan win in the title game and a great performance by the Wolverines’ quarterback, Denard Robinson, could deflate Ball’s Heisman hopes.
“I’m not going to lie to you and say I’m not thinking about it, but it’s in the back of my mind,” Ball said about the Heisman. “But I believe If I play in my shoes, not try to make a big play and do what I did last season or even better, I’ll be the one holding the trophy.”